Halfway through school year, more families in region keeping kids at home for all-remote learning
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a mathematical error that threw off three findings. The article was corrected on Jan. 28.
Schools have had four months to get comfortable operating in a pandemic, but thousands of families in the region still aren’t comfortable sending their children inside.
A survey of school districts by The Journal News/lohud found that at least 28,000 students in 32 Westchester, Rockland and Putnam districts that responded were opting for their district’s all-remote learning option as of the first half of January. The number has been creeping up in many districts since September.
“Our numbers of fully remote learners increased in the late fall as the number of positive cases in our community and in our schools went up,” said Lakeland Superintendent Brendan Lyons. “I think the numbers speak for themselves.”
Among the 32 districts that provided their remote learning stats, out of 54 in the three counties, an average of about 26% of students are choosing to stay home. That represents a 9% increase from when The Journal News/lohud surveyed districts in September and 35 provided numbers.
Twenty six districts provided their numbers in both the September and January surveys. In 19 of of those districts, the percentage of all-remote students went up at least 5%. The other seven districts’ numbers had not changed significantly since September.
No district saw their number of remote learners go down.
“Some of our families are more concerned now with in-person instruction than they were in the fall, when the community infection rate was low and their children were spending considerable time outdoors,” said Haldane Superintendent Philip Benante.
“The number of families who have elected the all-remote option has almost doubled since that time,” he said. “However, most of our families have opted to continue to send their children to school.”
More high school students home
The survey showed that the all-remote option has been more popular with high school students, who are more comfortable with independent learning even if many miss their peers and teachers.
In 21 of the 32 responding districts, a larger percentage of high school students were learning from home than elementary or middle school students.
Only East Ramapo had a larger percentage of elementary students engaging in all-remote options.
In the remaining 10 districts, the grade level split was relatively even.
In the September survey, no district had a larger share of high school students learning from home, and more than half reported elementary school students making up the majority of their remote students.
“We have had an increase in remote instruction requests in grades 7-12 due to the concern for quarantining, not the concern that individuals would catch the virus in schools,” said Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter.
Because high school students have individualized schedules, it’s nearly impossible to keep them isolated to a classroom “bubble” the way most younger students have been during the pandemic. With older students moving more in school, and coming into contact with more people, positive cases can lead to more students having to quarantine.
“Many [high school students] have other responsibilities outside of school, and they do not want to be quarantined away from those activities,” said Nanuet Superintendent Kevin McCahill.
That was the case for Mamaroneck parent Elizabeth Leifert’s two children. Her 12th-grade son was quarantined two weeks before Thanksgiving and returned to the building only to be quarantined again. Now he's all remote.
“We said, you know what, forget it, because it's just going to get worse after Christmas,” Leifert said.
Her daughter, a freshman, decided to go all remote, too, to avoid being quarantined from her sports team.
Leifert, herself a third-grade teacher, said remote learning is a more viable option for older children like hers because they don’t require the same amount of supervision.
“My kids did not want to go back [after Christmas], and I respected that,” Leifert said. “However, they will go back for the last quarter. I feel like they need to end the year with some sort of normalcy.”
In general, districts are placing more emphasis on flexibility between remote and hybrid models than they did in September. Quadruple the number of responding districts said they don’t require families to make a long-term commitment to full remote learning.
North Salem Superintendent Kenneth Freeston said his district initially required families to commit to remote learning for a full quarter, but “that became problematic … the requirement was not family friendly.”
Most districts still do ask families to commit to a semester or a marking period of all-remote learning because limited classroom capacity makes it difficult to shift students into hybrid learning on short notice. But many superintendents said that, in a situation that constantly evolves, they do their best to accommodate students’ changing needs.
“We ask that families be mindful of the importance [of] consistency with the instructional model,” said Elmsford Superintendent Marc Baiocco. “However, we have made exceptions based on our families' needs.”
Where is remote most popular?
The three responding districts with the largest share of students staying home are Peekskill, Nyack and Pearl River with 55%, 40% and 39% of students all remote, respectively. In September, Peekskill, at 45%, was the region’s highest.
“We did observe an increasing trend of remote only requests around the holidays,” said Nyack Superintendent James Montesano. “We are finding that our families are very astute at following the patterns of increasing infection rates in our area and adjusting accordingly.”
The responding districts with the smallest share of students at home are Dobbs Ferry, Byram Hills and Bronxville, all with 10% or fewer.
“The number of students choosing remote learning was quite stable from September to December,” said Byram Hills Deputy Superintendent Tim Kaltenecker. “We saw a rise in families choosing remote learning in December, particularly at the secondary level, and now I am seeing students transition back.”
The survey also showed divides among districts with different economic and racial makeups.
Of responding districts where at least 30% of students are classified as “economically disadvantaged,” an average of 36% of students were opting to learn from home. In districts with 10% or fewer of their students classified as economically disadvantaged, an average of 19% of students were choosing all-remote learning.
In districts with majority-minority student populations, according to the latest available state data, an average of 33% of students were in all-remote programs. But in districts where more than 75% of students are white, an average of about 20% of students were remote learners.
Such racial disparities are reflected in statewide data, according to a draft letter by state Interim Education Commissioner Betty Rosa to the U.S. Department of Education. That disparity is a main arguments the state Education Department plans to use in its request for a waiver from federal testing requirements.
“In districts that provided families the opportunity to choose between in-person and remote instruction models, data collected by the Department indicate that students of color were more likely to select remote instruction compared to their White peers and are more likely to continue in remote learning once in-person options are made available,” Rosa wrote.